Merchant’s House Museum
Also known as Old Merchant's House and the Seabury Tredwell House
Threats in the 1960s to the architecturally- and culturally-significant Old Merchant’s House were a major factor in the successful passage of the New York City Landmarks Law.
The Old Merchant’s House, built in 1832, is a four-story Greek Revival red brick row house, marked by distinctive dormer windows and a white marble door surround. The house was owned by Seabury Tredwell’s family from 1835 until the death of Tredwell’s daughter in 1933. In 1936, the home was opened to the public as a house museum. For much of its life as a museum, the Merchant’s House had subsisted under the managing authority of the Historic Landmarks Society (HLS), a group established in 1957 by a relative, George Chapman, to purchase the house and its contents and to protect the home from destruction. A short time after the HLS’s formation, George Chapman, who ran the HLS, attempted to sell the home to pay for his medical expenses. At first the board refused, but eventually acquiesced to purchase the family’s furnishings (which Chapman contended were not subject to the original HLS agreement). Because the HLS board used nearly all of their endowment to secure the contents of the house, their function changed to that of a holding company.1 After Chapman’s death, the house slowly sank into disrepair. Because of its financial woes, The Merchant’s House Museum struggled to remain open and operating. Throughout this time, the Municipal Art Society remained loyal to the cause of rescuing the Old Merchant’s House from decline.
Though it held no regulatory authority, the temporary Commission on Landmarks helped to compile a “Proposed List of Obvious Buildings and Monuments for Designation” in 1962.2 The Old Merchant’s House appeared on this list of over 100 of New York City’s landmark-worthy buildings. The Old Merchant’s House is noted for its architectural and historic significance.
The Old Merchant’s House was designated an individual exterior landmark on October 14, 1965 and an interior landmark on December 22, 1981. In 1965 it was listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places, the National Register of Historic Places, and designated a National Historic Landmark. The Old Merchant's House stands adjacent to the NoHo and NoHo East Historic Districts. Currently, the Merchant's House Museum is owned by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, operated by the Old Merchants House, Inc., and is a member of the Historic House Trust. The Old Merchant's House operates as a house museum and is open to the public.
April 15, 1935: The deed of the Old Merchant's House is handed over to the Historic Landmark Society
May 11, 1936: The Old Merchant’s House is opened to the public as a house museum for the first time
1962: The Old Merchant House is placed on the temporary Commission on Landmarks’s “Proposed List of Obvious Buildings and Monuments for Designation”
November 6, 1963: The Decorators Club formally begins to manage the museum and restore the Merchants House under the persuasion of Cornelia Van Siclen
Spring 1965: The Old Merchant’s House is threatened by a developer who purchased the lots on either side of the building for commercial use, and made it publicly clear that the Old Merchant’s House was in his sights for demolition. Students of the Downtown Community School in the area protest the demolition.
1965: The Old Merchant’s House is listed on the New York State Register of Historic Places, the National Register of Historic Places, and is designated a National Historic Landmark
October 14, 1965: The Old Merchant’s House's exterior is designated an individual New York City Landmark
1969: New York University staff architect Joseph Roberto begins to undertake the structural restoration of the Old Merchant's House.
December 1973: The name of the Historic Landmark Society is changed to The Old Merchant's House of New York
November 29, 1979: The restored Old Merchant's House is re-opened to the public
December 22, 1981: The interiors of the Old Merchant’s House are designated a New York City Landmark
In 1935, two years after Gertrude Tredwell’s death, George Chapman bought the house from Gertrude’s heir, Lillie Nichols. With the desire to memorialize the early merchant class in New York City, Chapman restored the house to its “original” condition in the 1830s and opened it as a historic house museum to the general public on May 11, 1936.1 Chapman also founded the Historic Landmark Society to care for the house. Nevertheless, the house began to deteriorate in the 1950s due to lack of proper care. Although Chapman had organized numerous fundraising activities in order to sustain the Old Merchant’s House as a museum, he did not raise a sufficient endowment before he passed away in 1959.
After Chapman’s death, the board members of the Historic Landmark Society managed to preserve the house with the help of several live-in caretakers including Emmeline Paige, Janet Hutchinson, and Randy Jack.2 Knowing that the board members of the Historic Landmark Society were trying to find a professional organization to help manage the museum, Randy Jack invited his friend Cornelia Van Siclen (a member of the Decorators Club, the oldest professional interior design organization in the United States) to visit the house and asked her if she thought the club would be interested in becoming involved. In 1963, the Decorators Club agreed to take on the management of the museum and the interior restoration project.3
In 1965, the Villager noted:
“The great dignity and beauty, shabby and threadbare, threatened, by the swinging demolitionist's ball to make way for another garage, the plight of the Old Merchant’s House at 20 E. Fourth St., may be the cause célèbre needed to get the Landmarks Bill passed by the City Council."4
Such was the impact one historic New York City home possessed during that tumultuous decade of social and legislative change.
By the spring of 1965, there arose a particularly dangerous threat to the home’s survival: a developer purchased the lots on either side of the building for commercial use, and made it publicly clear that the Merchant’s House was in his sights. Without the Landmarks Law, the house had no real protection, and local preservationists feared that it would be razed. This provoked media attention and a public outcry, which grabbed the attention of State Senator Frederic S. Berman, whose district of representation included both the Merchant’s House and the Brokaw Mansion, which was, at that time, in the final stages of demolition. Concurrently, the Downtown Community School adopted the house and cause, circulating petitions for the house’s retention and staging a parade in the area, dubbed the “Children’s Crusade of the Downtown Community School,” where students toted signs and sang “We Shall Not Be Moved,” albeit with updated, Merchant’s House-specific lyrics and "Where have all the landmarks gone. Gone to ruins, most everyone.”5 It was noted that this parade “focused city-wide attention on the problem,” and Berman, recognizing the urgency of establishing protection for historically significant structures, introduced a resolution in the state capitol, urging the New York City Council to pass the city’s Landmarks Bill.6
At that time, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) was operating “unofficially, without enabling legislation,” and had no official power to stall or prohibit unsympathetic actions taken upon historically- and aesthetically-noteworthy buildings.7 The LPC received several letters in support from organizations such as the Association of Village Homeowners, the Greenwich Village Association, and the Washington Square Association. Still, without action by the City Codification Committee, the LPC was powerless to complete its mission.
For the 300th Anniversary of the City of New York, WCBS (TV) special programming featured the Merchant’s House and considered “the problems of preserving and restoring historic structures for present and future generations.”8 It was clear that the time had come for a legal mechanism to protect New York City's landmarks. The Landmarks Bill was passed on April 6, 1965 and, 13 days later, was signed into law by Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. The New York City Landmarks Law was finally ratified thanks, in no small part, to the pressure that came from the passionate public outcry to save the Old Merchant’s House from demolition and vigilant reporting by the media that helped whip this public support into frenzy.
In 1967, the Merchant’s House suffered from severe water seepage and the Decorators Club asked Joseph Roberto, the New York University staff architect, to work on the restoration of the house. Roberto identified the structural issues with the house and began to to raise funds to carry out the four phase restoration. With funding from New York State Historic Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Department of the Interior, the Greenwich Village Homeowners Association, the Decorators Club, the Friends of the Old Merchant's House, the Vincent Astor Foundation and other donations, a thorough exterior, interior, and structural restoration was made possible. The house was reopened to the public towards the end of 1979. The Decorators Club continued to support the management of the Merchant’s House Museum during the 1980s and it is thanks to the dedication of the Decorators Club throughout the years that the House had its unique authentic appeal.9
The garage building in between the Old Merchant’s House and another landmark designated site, the Skidmore House, was sold to the Goldman/Minskoff organization in July 1987. Because this garage structurally supported the Merchant's House, its demolition between late 1987 and early 1988 was a devastating blow to the existence of the Old Merchant’s House. Without some type of major intervention, a complete collapse was found to be inevitable. Fortunately, through several offers and grants, including from the State of New York and settlement money from Minskoff, Margaret Halsey Gardiner, the executive director of the museum at the time, was able to hire the firm of Jan Hird Pokorny Association to restore the house.10
- Archives at The Merchant’s House Museum
29 East 4th Street
New York, NY 10003-7003
Tel: (212) 777-1089
- Mary L. Knapp, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House (New York: Girandole Books, 2015), page 19.
- Mary L. Knapp, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House (New York: Girandole Books, 2015), page 40.
- Mary L. Knapp, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House (New York: Girandole Books, 2015), page 43.
- Ada Louise Huxtable, “1832 ‘Village’ Landmark Faces Demolition,” The New York Times, 18 February 1965.
- Anthony Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect a City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2007), page 328.
- ”A Landmark May Have Reprieve,” Villager, 25 February 1965.
- Bernard Weinraub, “Children Picket for a Landmark, 100 Protest Threat to Tear Down Merchants House,” The New York Times, 7 March 1965.
- ”Immense Good Will for Landmarks Bill,” Villager, 11 March 1965.
- Ada Louise Huxtable, “U.S., State and City Aid Asked To Save Landmark on East Side,” The New York Times, 19 February 1965.
- ”A Landmark May Have Reprieve,” Villager, 25 February 1965.
Mary L. Knapp, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House (New York: Girandole Books, 2015), pages 131-132.
Mary L. Knapp, Miracle on Fourth Street: Saving an Old Merchant’s House (New York: Girandole Books, 2015), pages 145-146.